Chunhyang

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Chunhyang

Adapted from an 18th-century Korean folk song about a fairytale romance between the son of a provincial governor and the stubborn daughter of a lowly courtesan, Im Kwon-taek's Chunhyang looks ready for acquisition by The Walt Disney Company. The most lavish production ever mounted in South Korea, with more than 8,000 extras and 12,000 period costumes, it's a superficially dazzling piece of escapism, seducing the eye with colorful spectacle while peddling a star-crossed love affair as reliably formulaic as Romeo & Juliet. Eminently accessible and timelessly universal, it could be bound in hardcover and labeled My First Foreign Film, and it's an ideal primer for audiences scared off by subtitles. But just because Chunhyang's pleasures run skin deep doesn't mean they aren't real pleasures: Kwon-taek's storytelling talents imbue his classical elements with confidence and authority. His most audacious touch finds him including the strained, operatic vocals of a traditional Pansori singer who relays the story to a contemporary audience in a crowded theater. At times, the framing device is a major distraction from the epic's opulent sweep, with shots of enthusiastic dancing and applause providing viewers with cheap emotional cues. But taken alone, the vocals add gravity and cultural flavor to the musty tale of a romance that dares to cross well-guarded class boundaries. Cho Seung-Woo plays the governor's son, a highly educated 16-year-old who yearns to see the world outside his family's vast estate. On his first tour to the countryside, Seung-Woo spots the beautiful Lee Hyo-Jeong on a swing and is so thunderstruck that he soon declares his everlasting love and promises to marry her once he receives his commission from the king. But when he and his father are sent away to Seoul, the sadistic new governor demands that Hyo-Jeong, a courtesan's daughter, satisfy his needs. Thematically bare and psychologically empty, Chunhyang exists solely to celebrate its own shimmering radiance and the irresistible pull of a classic story well told. Its ambitions are all on the surface, in plain sight, but its postcard-pretty compositions and impossibly silken young leads are too lovely to resist. Designed for broad appeal on the international market, Chunhyang puts an attractive front on a Korean film scene better known for its darker corners.